Thursday, April 10, 2008

No. 447: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Band: Devo
Album: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Devo is smart, smart, smart. Looking at humanity from 30,000 feet, the band laid out its world view -- humanity is devolving and we're worse off than we were 100 years ago -- in the song. The band borrows from other rock, literary influences and the scientific community on "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!"
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album isn't as good as later work by the band. It's clever and interesting, though.
Best song: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is great and "Mongoloid" is awesome, too.
Worst song: "Come Back Jonee" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's not the band's best work, but it is pretty great.

It always surprises me how many people haven't heard this version. It's a great song.


In the mid-late 1970s, Mark Mothersbaugh and Co. had built a following around the Midwest. Their movie, "The Truth About De-Evolution," won the Ann Arbor Film Festival and was championed by Iggy Pop and David Bowie. This eventually lead to a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records and this record.

The recording of Devo's debut was wrought with problems. Brian Eno and the band fought the entire time, with Devo wanting to structure everything as they did their demos and Eno wanting to freewheel the whole thing (Eno's recording style was very informal).

Devo is... Devo is... Devo is... How does one describe Devo? The band is, well, strange. Based on the theory that humans have devolved into mindless sheep (check the band's bio here), the band satirized modernity with electronic instruments, jerky rhythms and odd time signatures. Like a punk rock progressive band, Devo had themes and

Oddly enough, good comparisons can be made to Kiss and Genesis. Like the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, the band performed in character (Mothersbaugh's Booji Boy) and utilized masks, hats and costumes. Like the famous Kabuki-faced rock quartet, Devo performed as a whole. Sometimes, the band would wear bright yellow radiation suits. Other times, they wore matching shirt/shorts combos. Famously, they wore red stackable hats in the era of the band's best album.

Unfortunately, the band fell into the one-hit wonder camp, thanks to the success of "Whip It." Most people don't know that Devo has any other records or that they had a whole conceptual show surrounding their music. Most people don't know that the band was highly sarcastic, with the famous single being about masturbation. Hell, most people don't know that Mark Mothersbaugh now scores films (doing all but one of Wes Anderson's films).

Devo is a smart band. Like Weezer after them, Devo embraced a nerd-rock affect that was far before its time. Kraftwerk and Neu! were huge influences and the band helped usher in the wave of synth pop. The band addressed the issues of consumerism, sex and society. As art students at Kent State, the band had witnessed the Kent State shootings in 1970 and became almost reactionary. Like many in the punk/New Wave movement, Devo wasn't sticking around for complacency.


As an album, "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" is somewhat spotty. The highs are remarkably high, but the band's attempts at more conventional song styles weren't particularly effective (the band would perfect this dance on "Freedom of Choice"). "Space Junk," for example, isn't wonderful, though it's a nice attempt at a pleasant rock song.

Where "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" really shines is in its weirdness. "Jocko Homo," one of the band's signature songs and the centerpiece of their early live shows, was named after a pamphlet that posited that humankind was devolving into a half-man/half-ape creature (hence "Jocko Homo"). The call-and-response nature of the song was inspired by a section in "The Island of Doctor Moreau." Almost a lecture, the song is largely the band's theme song and statement of purpose.

The album's opener is one of the band's best songs and their best early attempt at a conventional punk rock song. "Uncontrollable Urge" is furious and energetic. Driven by a quick-action guitar and Mothersbaugh's manic "yeah"s, the song's sexual nature is rivaled only by Van Halen's Roth-era stuff.

Like "Uncontrollable Urge," "Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy" is a furious song about sex and masturbation. Mothersbaugh's crazy vocal style and the band's guitar-driven punk shines on the track.

The album's most controversial -- and one of its best -- songs is "Mongoloid." The song's message is that someone who is mentally disabled ("Mongoloid" being a ridiculously outdated term for someone with Down Syndrome) is on the same mental level as a "normal" human being, thanks to devolution. With a sweeping synthesizer and a motorik beat, the song glorifies the subject while putting down society.

Oddly enough, a lot of people have not heard the band's cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It is, without a doubt, the most interesting version of the song. Almost Brak-like in his delivery, Mothersbaugh's vocals are crazed. He spits out the verses like a cartoon Tourette's patient while the slide-like bass and manic guitar pieces put the song together. All of this wraps itself around a Rube-Goldberg-sounding drum line that utilizes the weirder parts of the kit. The song's arrangement mocks the Stones' original meaning -- consumerism and young adulthood -- and does so beautifully. Mick Jagger calls it his favorite version.


"Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" is not Devo's best record. "Freedom of Choice" is the band's best record and is worlds better than this one. "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!," however, shows where the band started and where it would go. Like many New Wave records of the time, it was challenging and smart, two traits the band possessed in spades.

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